My daughter is seven. She’s a tiny perfectionist, brimming with plans for the whole world.
When those plans don’t work, or worse, when someone like her brother or her parents impede them, it’s painful for her. Like a tiny tsunami, crashing waves of sadness and anger rush out of her, overwhelming whatever conversation has been going on.
In these moments when it seems like she loses herself I often will interrupt. I used to tell her to be quiet or to go to her room. Probably that means I’m out of the running for most compassionate father.
But then I began to feel like I was communicating that her emotions weren’t OK. That’s not a message I want to give her, so I’ve been trying different things.
A few months ago, we had an unexpected conversation. She was ramping up in the middle of big stomping frustration, when I tapped her gently on her forehead. I asked her, “Hey, what’s in here?” A little bit confused, she paused and answered, “My brain.”
“Who is in charge of your brain?” I asked. She tilted her head and looked at me. After a pause she answered, “I am.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s good. So what are you doing with your brain right now?” She didn’t have an answer, so I asked her, “How about you and your brain take a moment to explain to me how you’re feeling, and then maybe you and I can use our brains to come up with a solution to this problem.”
And we were off. The tantrum’s energy dissipated and shortly we were having a constructive conversation. I’ve been thinking a lot about this interaction. Not just about my daughter, but about how I relate to her.
But it’s just how I feel…
There are so many times when I let my brain run amok. My attitude will head south and I’ll let it steer the ship, like a pirate who just seized the bridge. Feelings of entitlement will creep in and my tone of voice will turn sour and defensive with people that I love. My anxieties start whispering prophecies of nightmare scenarios just waiting to happen, unless I step up and take control right now!
All of this noise, buzzing around in my head and heart, can completely derail me from who I want to be. It feels so powerful, so overwhelming, so much like “This Is What Is So!” And yet, it’s not what’s so. It’s just what I’m letting my brain get away with.
Many in our culture presently live with a belief that everything inside the black box of our mind and heart just is what it is. We feel what we feel. We think what we think. We believe what we believe. This is just who we are, and the most authentic and healthy thing is to just express all of that. We act like we are simply the slaves of our insticts.
Surely, we can be. But that’s not how it has to be. Very often I forget that I am in charge of my brain. I can decide whether to soak in my attitude, or whether to acknowledge that attitude for what it is, process it and move on. I get to decide.
- When I’m struggling to get out of bed in the morning, I get to decide.
- When I’m in a conversation, feeling emotionally pressured by someone to do what they want me to do, I get to decide.
- When I’m beginning to feel frustrated and entitled, I get to decide.
Too often I don’t, but I can.
Emotions are a God-given tool, meant to help us understand what’s going on around us and our place in it. They provide motivation and priority. But my emotions are not the boss of me. Emotions initially happen automatically, but I get to decide if I nurture and focus on them. I get to choose to turn a momentary feeling into an emotional habit.
My intellect is God-given tool, meant for assessing the world around me, taking stock and making comparisons. This is a powerful and helpful capacity. But my reason is not the boss of me. For a long time I believed that my reason was my highest capacity, the part of me that was infallible. Ha! Turns out I can be led astray by my reason just as effectively as my emotions. Once I realize that it’s just another tool, I can use it toward the best ends, and not be mastered by it.
My story—that narrative of meaning constructed from the experiences of my childhood, my moments of victory and trauma—is powerful. It can lead me by the nose if I’m not paying attention. But my story is not the boss of me. It will run my life if I don’t understand it, but I can understand it. When I name the demons of my past and understand how they twist my heart, I can see them starting their work and laugh, instead of cowering. I can choose a different path.
In 1st Peter 1:13 we find these words:
“Therefore, with your minds ready for action, be serious and set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires of your former ignorance. But as the One who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; for it is written, Be holy, because I am holy.”
Here’s my paraphrase. It’s a bit expansive, but I think it’s still fair.
You can prepare your mind for action. You can choose your focus. Don’t build your hope or security on what you can do or what you can feel, but instead focus on God’s grace. You are loved. You have value. You have purpose. You are not alone.
Those shrieking anxieties make it seem like you want something, but you really don’t. Those desires are an attempt to feel secure all on your own. The God who loves you is set apart from all of that, and has invited you to step apart from all of that as well. You don’t have to be driven by those yammering voices. Choose to step apart.”